We Try To Be Strong Exhibition

Die Jess Sah Bi

We Try To Be Strong: 28 Years of Hmong Textiles in Philadelphia

Hmong people resettled in Philadelphia in the late 1970s: some 3,000+ refugees began to create a vital and vibrant community. Now only 140-some Hmong people remain. Over the past 28 years here, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, who co-curated this exhibition, has used traditional needlework to support and sustain Hmong community life. The work of 40 women are featured in this show, a brief reflection of local Hmong history and arts.

Introduction

“We came to this country very sad. We try to be strong here. We try to be an example. When we came here, many people thought Hmong people didn’t know how to do anything. Many people hated us. They thought we come here for welfare but it is not true. The Hmong people are very, very smart and not stingy or lazy. We open our hearts to help people do what they want to do. When we came here, we tried to learn. We have very strong hearts.”— Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun

In the late 1970s, more than 20,000 refugees from Southeast Asia were resettled in urban Philadelphia. Among them were some 3,000 Hmong people, an ethnic minority from the mountains of Laos. Recruited by the CIA into a clandestine army, Hmong people fought and died for US government interests during the years of the Vietnam War. Refugees arriving here had seen French and American wars destroy their villages and way of life. Hundreds of thousands died; no one was untouched. People made terrifying escapes to refugee camps in Thailand, and were now facing uncertain futures. Philadelphia was not especially hospitable. Anti-Asian violence, especially in West Philadelphia and against Hmong, took a huge toll. Young people were harassed in school, elders attacked, houses shot at and stoned. Many Hmong families moved away. The brutal beating of Seng Vang in 1984 in Powelton was a final blow; more people left and the Hmong community dwindled to 600. Now only about 140 Hmong, five extended families or clans, remain.

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun is among those who chose to stay. From her very arrival in 1979, she has used folk arts and cultural traditions to advance cross-cultural understanding and Hmong peoples’ well-being. The needlework displayed here comes from or through Pang: treasured family heirlooms, work made purposely to teach and “keep” Hmong culture, pieces made for gifts, others made to sell. A tiny sampling, these works suggest the continuing creativity, skill and resourcefulness of 40 Hmong women (including Pang) and the changing meanings and uses of paj ntaub (“flower cloth”) needlework. Over the past 28 years here, Pang has distinguished herself as a teacher, organizer, collector, entrepreneur and advocate for Hmong peoples’ cultural heritage. But the many issues that Pang has taken on are matters that all of the women included here have faced: What will any of us pass on to our children? How will they know who they are? What can we give them that will endure, and help them through the hard times? What roles will folk arts and cultural heritage play?

1. Doua Chang
Baby carrier / nyas
Long Chieng, Laos, 1962
Green Hmong cross design “for protection.” Appliqué, reverse appliqué, hand-made pompons. Cotton. 23” x 17"
“I cry every time I see this. Before I left home, my mother made me one baby carrier. A mother is supposed to make one baby carrier for each of her grandchildren, but my mother was only able to make one, because we were separated and because of the war. But I always kept this."

2. Doua Chang
Baby carrier / nyas
Thailand, 1980
Green Hmong snail design appliqué, reverse appliqué and batik. Silk and cotton, yarn pompons. 24” x 16.5"
"When my mother came here to Philadelphia and she saw the one carrier that I had used for my six children, she wanted to make me a new one. She did the needlework but my father chose the colors. My father always liked the black and the white. He always told me, your mother doesn’t have the idea to put colors."


WEARING CULTURE

“I want Hmong people to wear their clothes all the time. I want people to let my people wear clothing like this again. And respect each other and remember where you come from and what you were doing before, not to forget. You might get a good job and forget your own people, and that is not good. And you might forget beautiful things made by hand.”—Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun

Pang Xiong observes that her South Asian neighbors in Upper Darby wear their traditional garb in public, everyday. She wants this for Hmong people, too. But she also recalls what it was like when she first came here: when wearing traditional clothes seemed to invite harassment. In the 1980s, most Hmong people put traditional clothes away, saving them for special celebrations, including New Year, when dispersed Hmong communities from across the country would visit, and people would dress in their finery, looking towards the coming year with hope. Successful in many ways, younger “Americanized” Hmong people, born or raised here, make and wear Hmong clothes for New Year, celebrations and rituals, also wondering: how can they “keep culture” without fluency in Hmong, or skill with a needle, or as Christians. They are forging new paths.

When Pang was young, growing up in Xieng Khouang province in the mountains of northern Laos, women generally owned 4-5 sets of clothing, all hand-made, most worn for everyday work, some for special occasions; all adorned to a greater or lesser degree with the intricate traditional paj ntaub needlework patterns for which Hmong people have long been famous. Hmong people belong to different sub-groups— Green Hmong, White Hmong, and Striped Hmong— distinguished by dialect and also by particular traditions of clothing style and textile design. These traditions may mix these days, but clothes can still show lineage, status and place in a community, and one’s connections with others. Clothes can have spiritual and symbolic resonance, and show a woman’s skill with a needle, her mastery of design and her creativity. Gifts of clothes across generations— from baby carriers for children to funeral clothes for elders— continue to carry many kinds of meanings.

3. Youa Vang
Apron with belt / sev
Xieng Khouang, Laos, 1957
White Hmong appliqué, reverse appliqué, and embroidery. Silk and cotton. Silk belt. 51” x 27”
“My mother wore this— her everyday apron for farming. You can see: it was washed and dried outside until the thread turned white. My aunt and another uncle kept it. About five years ago, when I went back, they gave it to me. I told them, ‘I don’t need a new thing. I need old things only.’” When my mother wore this, it was during the first Vietnamese War. I remember that I saw a lot of French soldiers jumping from the airplane with parachutes. Very scary and big bombs.”

4. Youa Vang, Mos Nyiaj Xiong, Mai Yee Xiong and Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Apron with belt / sev
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1976 (individual pieces made 1950s – 1976, Laos)
White Hmong. Cotton, silk. 27” x 19”
These panels were made by Pang’s birth mother, sister and aunt decades earlier, and then put to new use. Pang did the center panel (a chain snails pattern), and the belt, and she stitched them all together to use in a dance performance at Ban Vinai refugee camp.

5. Mee Xiong
Funeral overcoat / tsho laus
Philadelphia, 1987
Green Hmong appliqué, embroidery. Cotton. 63" x 44"
A daughter is expected to make funeral garb for her parents, to be used when they die. In this case, a mother made this; her daughter keeps it. Loaned by Xia Chang.

6. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Apron with belt / sev
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1976 -1978 and Upper Darby, 1990s
Cross stitch on cotton, silk, pompoms, coins. 27” x 19”
Old style.” Made for dance performances that Pang organized at Ban Vinai camp.

7. Choua Cha
Apron with belt / sev
Upper Darby, PA, 2005 White Hmong and Striped Hmong cross stitch embroidery, stars and snails designs. Cotton and polyester. 33" x 10"
Hand-made for wearing during New Year celebrations by a member of the next generation, one of Pang’s daughters-in-law. Loaned by Choua Cha.

8. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun and Ma Vang
Apron with belt / sev
Upper Darby, PA, 2006
Cotton, polyester, beads and coins. 28" x 10.5”
New style apron”— started long ago, then finished recently, with the help of a sister-in-law and a sewing machine. Pang exclaims: “Still unfinished. No time to finish!

9. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Rooster-style hat / kaus mom
Ban Vinai camp, Thailand, 1976
Green Hmong appliqué, reverse appliqué, embroidery, pompons, silver. 14” x 10”
Made for use in cultural programs in Ban Vinai camp, this hat is well-travelled. Pang says “This has been in lots of exhibitions!

10. Yee Pha
Star hat / kaus mom
Upper Darby, PA, 2005
White Hmong tradition, embroidered one-way stitches, weaving stitch, beads. 11” x 9”
Made for Hmong New Year celebrations, with beads replacing the older tradition of silver.
Loaned by Yee Pha.

11. Doua Chang, Tzer Chang and Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Belt / quas siv
Long Chieng, Laos, 1967
Green Hmong. Silk from cocoon, hemp, cotton, with new beads. 74” x 3”
“This is very old style. I already was married and I went back and stayed at home so I could learn how to make silk from a cocoon. My mother and aunt showed me. I was fascinated to learn! I tried very hard to learn. I was always crazy about the sewing, I don’t know why. It was just in my mind.”

12. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Headband / siv ceeb
Xieng Khouang, Laos, 1957
White Hmong embroidery. Silk and cotton. 22” x 1.5”
Pang learned to make this from her birth mother, Youa Vang, before she died.

13. Soua Lo
Money bag (top) / nhab nyaij
Xieng Khouang, Laos, c. 1947
White Hmong. nhiav txiab pattern 5.75” x 5.75”
Pang took apart this moneybag, made by her grandmother, to show just the top in exhibitions. The bag itself was handed down from her grandmother to her mother, and then to Pang.

14. Youa Vang
Money bag / nhab nyaij
Xieng Khouang, Laos, 1952-53
White Hmong, Appliqué, reverse appliqué and embroidery. 5.5” x 5.5”, strap 1.5” x 23”
“I remember having this when I was a little girl, old enough to be walking and running. They told me about New Year and that people had to have these. I wanted it to be short, so that it wouldn’t drag. I watched my mother make this and she said, ‘You keep this.’”

15. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Money bag (top) / nhab nyaij
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1976, completed in Philadelphia, 1984
White Hmong thread snail (qab qwj lawv) pattern, 7” x 7”
“This is the pattern I like best of all. I like it because it is so hard! People don’t believe you can do it—something with just threads and no drawing. You just use the design in your head.”

16. Pliab Lee
Money bag / nhab nyaij
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1995
White Hmong. 8” x 10.5”, 21.5” x 1.5” strap
“I ordered this from Ban Vinai camp, from my cousin. It is called #1 pattern (nhiav txiab) and it is harder than everything! I wanted this because it is very Hmong colors. She keeps her mom’s style. I need to keep old peoples’ design. I can’t make this now. My eyes are bad and I don’t have the time. But I put the coins on.”

17. Ka Xiong Bouddy
Doll / menyuam nkawj nyab
Upper Darby, PA, 1997
Green Hmong skirt, White Hmong top, Striped Hmong hat, 33” x 13”
“When we were little, everyone made dolls. We made them out of banana leaves and flowers. We made mothers, fathers and babies, too!” This elaborate doll was given as a gift to Pang, in gratitude; she admires the cleverness and detail, and the knowledge that it represents.

18. Tzer Chang
Green Hmong Skirt / tiab hmong lees
Ban Vinai, 1997
Green Hmong skirt, 26” x 24”
Tzer Chang made this as a gift for her daughter Zoua Vang (married to Pang’s fourth son),
teaching her in the process. It took at least six months for the cross-stitch alone. Once finished, the skirts are pleated with some 500 mushroom pleats, stitched together and left folded up for a year, “then the pleats will never come out.” Loaned by Zoua Vang.

19. Chia Kue
White Hmong Skirt / tiab hmong daub
Upper Darby, PA 1998
White Hmong pleated skirt. 36” x 24”
Chia Kue taught 8 women how to make these skirts in a formal apprenticeship funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Each finished her own skirt. Loaned by Chia Kue.

20. Pang Xiong Sirithasuk Sikoun
Doll skirt / tiab hmong lees
Upper Darby, PA 1998
Green Hmong appliqué, reverse appliqué, and embroidery on batik. 36” x 11.5”

Photo: Phoua Xiong, Ka Xiong, May Xiong and Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, after a dance performance. Photo: Robert Dias, Philadelphia Bulletin, c. early 1990s

21-22. Song Thao
Two collars / dab tshos
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1980
(21) White Hmong reverse appliqué: snails running, cucumber seed and peacock eyes, triangle threads patterns. 5.5” x 8”. (22) White Hmong: fabric triangle, scissors step and appliqué Chinese green flower, snails running. 7.25” x 9.5” “Very hard ones, very nice ones. The smallest [red] was made for her daughter for parties. The blue and red are old colors, and for a collar that would be worn everyday working in field.” Loaned by Song Thao.

23. Song Thao
Funeral collar / dab tshos laws
Upper Darby, PA, 1995 –1996
White Hmong funeral collars, thread chains pattern, made of thread only. 17” x 17”
“You are supposed to make these for your parents; this is a very hard pattern to do.” Loaned by Song Thao.

24-25. Chia Kue
Two two-sided collars / dab tshos
Upper Darby, PA
Green Hmong buffalo horn design, appliqué and embroidery. 8.5” x 4.75” and 5” x 3” “There is a folktale that said that the colored side was a beautiful design that the Green Hmong clan stole from White Hmong people long, long ago. So it is worn inside, hidden. The outside allows you to see a bit of the underneath coming through, but it is a traditional Green Hmong design inside.” Loaned by Chia Kue.

26-27. Doua Chang
Two collars / dab tshos
Ban Vinai 1976, Upper Darby 1980
Older collar: Chinese green flower appliqué with four flowers stitching (8” x 4.5”). The second inspired by the first: triangle chain and snails running fence (9” x 4.5”). “My mother gave me this and told me, ‘You have to keep it and teach your children.’ I like these a lot because they are hard to do. No-one can do these anymore.”

28-33. Pang Xiong Sirithasuk Sikoun
Six collars / dab tshos
Xieng Khouang, 1958, 1960, 1968 and Ban Vinai 1976. Collars made by Pang over nearly twenty years, at age 14, 16, 24 and 36.
(28) 1958, [Green and yellow]: 3 layer fans appliqué, embroidery, 5” x 6”
(29) 1958. [Red and gray]: Cross, Chinese 5 flower pattern reverse appliqué and embroidery. Chinese silk. 6.25” x 6”
(30) 1960, [White on white, red green]: “A very nice chicken feet design, for good luck”, appliqué and thread. 6” x 5.5”
(31) 1960, [Red, blue, green yellow] Quab nyug. Chinese red flower, cross-stitch. 6” x 5”
(32) 1968. [Yellow, red, green cross-stitch] fishbone pattern. 7” x 6.25”
(33) 1976. [Purple, red, green thread on white] double fishbone with thread. 7” x 6.25”

34. Sua Lo
Part of a belt / tw siv
Xieng Khouang, 1939
White Hmong. Appliqué and embroidery, qhov quab design. Silk. 3" x 14"
“This is very old. I always like the old. I always told my dad, don’t throw anything away. That’s why he kept all the old things.”

35. Youa Vang
Part of a belt / tw siv
Xieng Khouang, 1957-58
White Hmong chain snails, cucumber seeds design, flower threads, and quab nyug (beginning) designs. Silk. 4” x 20”
“I have used these designs and made them bigger. I learned a lot from this belt!”

36. Yee Xiong
Part of a belt / tw iev
Xieng Khouang, 1960 White Hmong, silk, 23” x 3.5”
“This is from my aunt. Very old cloth.”

37. Pang Xiong
Piece for a child’s apron belt / sev
Xieng Khuoang, in the mountains, 1956-57 White Hmong, 2.5” x 17”
“I made this when I was 12 years old, before my mother died. I wore it every day! I kept it all these years. This is old style.”


STITCHING STORIES

“Because we could not show people in reading and writing, we used pictures to show the hurt inside our hearts, to show the American people what happened to us before.”—Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun


Between 1976 and 1979, when Pang Xiong was there, the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand housed more than 45,000 people displaced from their homes in neighboring Laos by the war. Conditions were terrible. But it was the largest settlement of Hmong people in the world. Culture was a resource for people hungry for familiar ways, beauty and hope— and actively shaping paths for rebuilding their lives. Life went on in the camp, and children were introduced to Hmong culture in old and new ways. Pang Xiong was among those teaching classes in paj ntaub, dance, music, manners and values, and organizing cultural performances.

Hmong women in Ban Vinai came from different regions and sub-groups. With time on their hands, and plenty of skill, they experimented with diverse paj ntaub patterns, designs and styles— both for personal use, and for sale to aid workers, camp visitors and through them, to wider markets, as a means of survival. Paj ntaub changed rapidly as a range of government, religious, and private organizations actively encouraged and brokered Hmong commercial paj ntaub production. Women produced larger and elaborated versions of the traditional geometric designs (altered according to market preferences and individual inclinations) as well as a new kind of “story cloth”: figurative pieces, visual narratives on a wide range of topics. Stories of the Hmong peoples’ migrations from the mountains of southern China to Laos, narratives of the wars, local histories, folktales, and depictions of Hmong village life were among the popular topics stitched. Many different versions of stories— contradictory and complex, inspiring and moving, uncomfortable and painful— are contained in the beautiful needlework.

38. Mee Yang and others
Story cloth / paj ntaub dab neeg
Vientiane, Laos, 2005 Embroidery on cotton. 98” x 64”
“This is the real history of the Hmong people. I like this a lot. The whole story is here. I drew what I wanted, and Mee Vang sent me a picture before I bought it, of what it would look like. Her son also did some of the drawing. She never made a big piece like this for sale because it is too costly. But I wanted this because it is important for me. This is the story of my people— how we had our own country but we had to move from place to place. So I need the whole story here. I wanted to see the picture. If people hear it, they don’t remember it. If they see it, they will remember.”

This story cloth tells of the Hmong people’s history in China, and the long-running conflicts there which led to many Hmong migrating to Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Hmong village life is depicted— planting, farming, caring for animals, cooking—and the town of Long Chieng appears— with soldiers, scenes from the wars that took Hmong lives, destroyed homes and villages, and displaced families. Airplanes are firing at houses, and Hmong homes are aflame. The city of Vientiane, the Mekong River, and Ban Vinai refugee camp— part of many Hmong peoples’ experience of war and dislocation— are included. While the best known story cloths of the war in Southeast Asia feature scenes of battle, the dangers of the escape to Thailand across the Mekong River, and the Ban Vinai camp, this cloth tells the story of even earlier Hmong migrations to escape war and untenable conditions.

39. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun and 60 students
Story cloth of the background of the Hmong / paj ntaub dab neeg
Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1977-78, finished here.
Embroidery on cotton, 65” x 59”
“This is the background of the Hmong people— what it used to be like. Hmong people always liked animals, and took care of the animals, and paid attention to the weather. There are stories about some birds and some animals. Some animals if you whistle to them, they will understand. The reason we like this is thinking about what it used to be like, when we were happy in the mountains.”

40. Mos Nyiaj Xiong and Mai See Ly
Story cloth of the Battle of Long Chieng / paj ntaub dab neeg
Ban Vinai, Thailand, February 1977 Embroidery on cotton, 29” x 27
“A man in the camp drew it. Any picture he liked, he could draw it for you. He was like me, thinking about culture, too. I asked him to make this picture. I did this because it was so hard, in the camps, to get to come to America. In line to come here, they were so hurtful.”

“ I had this made this to show people: ‘You people came to me, to my home town and made it broken.’ In my head, I showed it to the Americans. Now I really show it, many times, to tell the real story.”

The story cloth recounts a battle in Long Chieng in the American war, the main Hmong military encampment. “My brother was in the soldier’s camp there. Two of my brothers died. This is about Hmong people trying to live in the bottom of the mountain and the soldiers came and had to be in a camp on top. The war was going on all around us. Then I thought that we would all die, because the bombs came every night. Families were separated. And we never can really go back, or stay together in one family like before. My father told this story about moving from our place and the war story and the killing story. And when he talked about this, he cried. And many people cried, too.“

41. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Story cloth of the Sirirathasuk family / paj ntaub dab neeg
Upper Darby, 1987
Embroidery on cotton, 24” x 33”
This story of her own house was sketched by Pang’s third son, to her direction.

42. Yee Vang Lo, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun and students
Story cloth of the Bird family and Yer / paj ntaub dab neeg
Ban Vinai, 1976-7 and Philadelphia, 1996
Embroidery on cotton, 40” x 56”
This folktale about a silent princess (in a former life, a bird) who is
tricked into speaking was one of the favorite stories of Pang’s father,
Xia Cao Xiong.

Photo: Ban Vinai Camp, courtesy Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun


TEACHING AND LEARNING PAJ NTAUB

“I want my children and grandchildren to know what I know. And I need other people to know what Hmong people, do, also. That is very important to me, too. To preserve our culture, we need to help each other. We need people to know us. I want people to know my people. Beginning with a long time ago. But right now, we can explain things from our heart.”

“ I have been happy to do this. Lots of times I didn’t get paid. When I am asked to do something for people, I don’t ask how much money. If it is for my people, I say yes. This work is important. I need people to know. Money doesn’t last. This work is for your mind and for your heart.”— Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun

Pang had worked as a teacher, translator and cultural broker in Thailand and Laos; she saw the importance of these efforts. Teaching, learning— the work of the mind and the heart— this is what will endure.

Within a few weeks of her arrival here in 1979, Pang Xiong accepted an invitation to perform Hmong and Lao dance at Drexel University. (Thai people invited her, she recalls.) In the first decade of Hmong presence here, Maxine Miska, Amy Catlin, Carole Boughter and Sally Peterson were among those involved, in turn, in shaping new contexts for Pang and other Hmong community members to perform, teach, document, study and share Hmong culture. These included public settings— like the Folklife Center of International House and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and a number of national touring exhibitions—as well as Hmong community settings, where Pang and other Hmong people engaged in documenting and teaching their own traditions: a priority as the immigrant generation aimed to respond to a wide range of critical local community needs, and to bridge the gap between the world they knew and the American world of their children. In a wide range of projects, from the 1980s to the present, Hmong elders have shared what they knew, and young people gained instruction in needlework, kwv txhiaj (songs), stories, customs and more.

Pang Xiong’s work as an educator and culture-broker has made her visible inside and outside the Hmong community. “I am in more than 30 books,” she says. (Her children note that she is listed 70+ places on the web). Pang may be more visible than many other Hmong women to outsiders; her work has been largely authorized by, and returned to a wide network of community members working together.

Photo: Choua Moua, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Bao Yang. Upper Darby, PA 1988. Photo: Thomas B. Morton

43. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Yee Lo, Mao Vang Xiong (master artists) and Yer Lo, Mai Xiong, Pa Houa Moua. Ka Xiong, Bao Yang, Foua Lo, Lhee Sirirathasuk, Yer Xiong, and Shai Yang (apprentices)
Quilt/wall hanging / paj ntaub
Upper Darby, PA, 1987
Various patterns, 50” x 37.5”
Three skilled Hmong artists— Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Yee Lo, and Mao Vang Xiong— taught nine young Hmong women traditional paj ntaub patterns in a formal apprenticeship project, the second to be coordinated by the Folklife Center at International House and funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. This was one of many such state- and federally-funded programs, in which modest grants were used to help encourage both young people and elders to continue, and share knowledge about, Hmong folk arts. Pang kept this quilt as an aid in teaching patterns.

44. Mao Vang
Xiong Quilt/wall hanging / paj ntaub
Philadelphia, PA, [date]
White Hmong patterns; circular patterns for good luck, squares for long life and prosperity. Cotton, 57” x 40”
Mao Vang Xiong had a reputation for fine needlework as a child and young woman in Xhieng Kouang, Laos. In the U.S. since 1976, her work has been included in national exhibitions and she has taught paj ntaub both informally and formally. She also worked on many paj ntaub pieces since moving to Philadelphia in 1978 that never were presented or showcased publicly. Her family finally realized the significance (and quiet anticipation) behind some of her hard labor when she organized a surprise ceremony in the summer of 2006 to celebrate and bless her children, giving each a paj ntaub hanging representing her love and honoring their successes: a gift of heritage and beauty to be treasured. Her son Doua, who has an M.P.H., received two quilts including this one. His sister, Phua, an M.D., also received two quilts, one for each degree. All together, Mao Vang Xiong produced 11 quilts for her nine children. Her beautiful gifts represent a new way of making paj ntaub meaningful, a new kind of ceremony, and a new way of blending Christian symbolism with older Hmong traditions. Loaned by Doua Xiong.


STITCHING A LIVELIHOOD

“A long time ago, in China, they made rules against the Hmong people using their own language and wearing their own kind of clothes. Some people say that the designs in the paj ntaub were a hidden form of language. The designs were sewn into clothes or were cut up into patches to disguise the messages they contained. The women carried the paj ntaub because they were not suspected of holding on to the written language of the people. But eventually people forgot how to read the designs of the paj ntaub too.”—Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun


Paj ntaub continue to have many meanings, and to be put to many purposes. Shortly after her arrival here, Pang Xiong began to study English at Community College of Philadelphia. She brought paj ntaub to stitch, and her teachers wanted to buy it. “That’s how the selling started here,” she says. One arranged for Pang to sell crafts at Headhouse Square in 1991. (She still sells there). Another advised her to hold an open house: she has now held Christmas sales for 28 years, and 1000 people are on her mailing list. These on-going sales opportunities have provided work for many Hmong women over the years. Some who once stitched paj ntaub for sale are no longer interested in producing intricate and time-consuming needlework, hard on the eyes and hands. Needlework is still a lifeline for some Hmong relatives in Laos, struggling to survive, unable to join their families here. Pang Xiong travels regularly to Laos and Thailand where she commissions and purchases work. She shares techniques, fabric and drawings of what she knows will sell. She is one of many middlepersons now involved in brokering the global trade (and changing functions) of Hmong needlework. More than 200 women receive cloth, patterns and drawings from her, returning finished goods to her specifications.

New uses for Hmong women’s needlework skills continue to emerge: it is not only paj ntaub that Hmong women create. Since 1984, Pang and other Hmong women have been stitching “Amish” quilts, their labor and skill needed and welcomed, but their identities usually hidden for fear of diminishing the “authenticity” (and value) of these saleable goods. By 1987, some say that 99% of appliqué work in Lancaster county was done by Hmong women— including Lancaster and Philadelphia-area Hmong, and a global network of kin. Some Lancaster-area shopkeepers went to great lengths to hide their relationships with Hmong artists, making them enter through back doors or after hours. Controversies have erupted over this, and hard feelings abound, but Pang is one of a network of area Hmong women who still continue to make and trade “Amish” quilts— adapting yet another ethnic needlework tradition in a long history of trade and exchange of patterns and labor.

45-59. Various artists
Paj ntaub for sale Upper Darby and Laos, 1990 – 2007
Examples of works made for sale and trade

60. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Quilt Upper Darby, PA, 1996
“I am the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley.” Appliqué. Cotton and polyester, 34” x 34”
“The reason I made this is because many times we made things and Amish people never said so. I just want people to know that I made this.” Pang made this particular quilt, a popular Amish pattern, for her children to keep.


LOOKING FORWARD

“ I want to open my heart to show people. I want to open my brain to show people before I die! I need to transfer my mind and heart to people. I need to do a museum and I need to do classes. If anyone wants to learn more, I am happy to open my door and share what I know.”— Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun

What will the next decades bring? What will be the place and meaning of paj ntaub? How will Hmong cultural traditions, values, and ethics be understood, and used? How will values of interdependence, responsibility to family, clan and community, gifts of heart and head, endure?

Each work on these walls carries more stories than can be told— where and when it was made, by whom, how it has been used, kept, treasured and what it means to people. The older pieces come from a world now lost: from a time of self-sufficiency and settled belief, of intimate knowledge of land and animals, spirit and communities. The present was interpretable, the future predictable. Newer pieces hold the life stories, sorrows, hopes and dreams of the makers and their families; they tell how people have come to manage and thrive in an utterly different world. These days, young Hmong Americans share their own stories and connect across the internet as much as through paj ntaub. There are Hmong websites, mailing lists, chat rooms, listserves that help with everyday issues, and with “keeping Hmong culture” in more ways than can be imagined. Who can tell what is ahead?

We invite your thoughts on the histories and arts of Hmong people here. What do these works mean to you? What are your stories of the last decades here? What does the future hold? What is the place and state of folk arts and culture?


Credits

Artists Included

Choua ChaMa Vang
Doua ChangBao Yang
Tzer Chang (aunt of Pang)Mee Yang
Tzer Chang (mother of Zoua Vang)Shai Yang
Chia KueKa Xiong
Pliab LeeKa Xiong Bouddy
Foua LoMai Xiong
Soua LoMai Yee Xiong
Yee LoMao Vang Xiong
Yee Vang LoMee Xiong
Yer LoMos Nyiaj Xiong
Pa Houa MouaPang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun
Yee PhaYee Xiong
Lhee SiririathasukYer Xiong
Song ThaoYoua Vang Xiong

Unless indicated otherwise, works are from the collection of Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun. Also, unless indicated otherwise, all quotations are from Pang Xiong, as well.

We try to be strong was curated by Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun and Debora Kodish with the assistance of Sally Peterson, Doua Xiong and Ka Xiong. It was installed by Kim Tieger. We are grateful for the help of Choua Cha, Xia Chang, Yee Pha, Ka Xiong Bouddy, Zoua Vang, Chia Kue, Song Thao, and Mao Vang Xiong. We try to be strong is one of a series of Philadelphia Folklore Project’s 20th anniversary exhibitions exploring the state of folk arts in Philadelphia, made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great arts, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and by Philadelphia Folklore Project members. Thank you to all.

Photos: Pang Xiong (third from the right) and her family in Xhieng Khouang, Laos, c. 1959. Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun surrounded by her family, Upper Darby, PA, 1996. Photo: Jane Levine

^ top

^ top

Click any image to enlarge. Once its enlarged, click to close, or mouse over the image and button controls appear to navigate the gallary.